Due to their sheer inaccessibility, cliffs are the last frontier for many of Hawaii’s rare and endangered native plant species. Preserved by extreme isolation and jagged terrain, Kauai’s Kalalau sea cliffs represent one of the richest remaining refuges for the state’s rare botanicals.

Collecting plant samples from these and other cliffs across the island chain is imperative for plant conservation and the health of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s seed bank, a repository where seeds are stored to preserve genetic diversity for future research.

But it’s time consuming and perilous for scientists to rappel or hike into such steep terrain. And it’s expensive to use a helicopter.

Scientists used a robotic arm fixed to a drone to collect a sample of wilkesia hobdyi, a species of flowering plant endemic to Kauai. Courtesy: National Tropical Botanical Garden/2022

Now there’s an easier way. NTBG scientists partnered with researchers and engineers in Canada to design a robotic arm fixed to a drone that can collect rare and endangered plants at distances of up to a mile away from the operator.

Roughly the length of a fishing rod, the robotic arm, nicknamed Mamba, has already been used in Hawaii to collect seeds and cuttings of rare native plant species, such as Lysimachia iniki and Isodendrion pyrifolium, from remote, vertical cliff faces.

NTBG drone specialist Ben Nyberg called the technology “ground-breaking” in a prepared statement, adding that the new application of robotics to botany is already helping to bolster native plant conservation.

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